A veterinary surgery in Wetherby was just not interesting enough and he lounged, half asleep on the consulting room floor. His name seemed to suit him. He looked like a lazy Golden Retriever but his owner, indignant at my incorrect identification of this unusual breed, put me right.
“He’s not a Golden Retriever – that’s what everyone thinks. He’s actually a Maremma. He’s a livestock guarding dog.”
His owner was clearly passionate about this breed, its provenance and heritage. It turned out that Arthur’s ancestors hailed from the mountains of Italy, where they had the important role of guarding flocks of sheep from wolves and other predators.
Arthur’s forefathers would lounge around all day, just like he was doing in my consulting room, but would spring into action if anyone or anything came to threaten the safety of the animals under their care.
It was a fascinating story and a role that I had not considered before. Of course, in England, where predators such as wolves do not exist, dogs help farmers by rounding up sheep or cows.
The breeds that have evolved are those that are nimble and quick, and have an innate ability to herd. But in Southern and Eastern Europe, the role of these guard dogs, which blend in with the flock of sheep or herd of goats, has been crucial. Over tea that evening, I regaled the story of this fascinating historical animal inter-relationship.
After an evening Zoom meeting later that same week, with a brilliant organisation called the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), it became evident that using dogs to guard livestock is very much an activity of the present, if not the future.
Cheetahs are in trouble. There are only 7,000 left in the wild and they are on the cusp of becoming endangered. One of the causes of this is persecution by impoverished farmers as they – entirely understandably – try to protect their precious sheep and goats from predation by this, the slightest and most unassuming of the big cats. This is where the modern livestock-guarding dog comes into play. In Namibia, they are using Anatolian Shepherd dogs. Originally, these dogs protected Turkish goats from wolves and bears, but nowadays their presence deters hungry cheetahs from roaming too close to the farmers’ rifles. As I learnt all about this amazing utilitarian relationship between man and animal, I promised I would try to help raise awareness of this wonderful animal altruism.
The dogs stay with their flock or herd and become a full-time member of the gang, forming a bond that will last not just a lifetime, but through many generations. Pups imprint from as early as a few weeks of age.
A good livestock-guarding dog must have the key attributes of trustworthiness, attentiveness and protectiveness. It’s no good if they lose interest and wander off. The CCF started this
Livestock Guarding pro-gramme in 1994 and it has been hugely successful, reducing cheetah losses by more than 80 per cent.
My interest was piqued and I investigated more examples of this phenomenon. I’d heard about alpacas protecting new-born lambs from the dangers of foxes, but then I found a canine helper closer to home.
There’s a chicken farm in West Yorkshire which uses guarding dogs to keep predators at bay! Livestock guarding, it turns out, is alive and well.
■ More information on Cheetah conservation can be found at www.cheetah.org